12 March 2010

First Machine Sounds

The start of the rest of human history: the Manchester Mark 1, 1951 (digital60.org)

The digital computer is the most important human invention - forget about cities, the internal combustion engine, and the neolithic revolution. Music comes second, and no music is recorded or disseminated today without digital computers.

So the collision of the two marks a new age in human history, and every new age needs its founding moments. Behold, the earliest recording of computer music, from the Manchester Mark 1, Manchester, England, autumn 1951.

"God save the King", "Baa Baa Black Sheep", and "In the Mood". There's some chatting, laughter, and silence as knobs get fiddled, and performance starts at 1:12 or so. The music was programmed by Christopher Strachey. The recording was made by the BBC, on assignment in Manchester's pioneering computer labs.

You might think I'm being sarcastic here, but I mean it. (And not just because I like songs like this.) Archaeology has always been concerned with origin myths, with periodization, with the notion of 'new eras'. And like any historical narrative, this one is subject to all kinds of rewriting and restructuring to match the mores of the present. The 2008 BBC article covering the story, for instance, pretends that "God Save the King" is not on the recording, presumably for reasons of political correctness.

The stress on the first recorded music also hides the real innovator: even though the Mark 1 was the first computer to run stored programs, the CSIRAC computer in Melbourne was the first to play music in 1950, and performed the popular tune "Colonel Bogey" for the public in August 1951. It wasn't recorded, but here's a reconstruction:

Sounds like hell, but I'm sure the first Neanderthal flute sounded pretty shitty too. (More dubious Neanderthal tunes.) You can keep playing the "who was first" game for quite a while (see below), which is tiresome - every invention I can think of was the product of multiple minds, often working at cross-purposes. The obsession with "firsts" is a distraction from thinking about how awesome computers playing music is and all the awesome feelings it's made possible.

Parting shot: the first computer vox, performed by an IBM 7094 in 1961 (programming by John Kelly and Carol Lockbaum. It's like Lil Wayne's grandpa.


  1. Now I know what inspired Aaron Koblin in his work "Bicycle built for 2000". Check it out at http://www.bicyclebuiltfortwothousand.com/ you can compare the original computer version with that assembled from over 2000 human voices recorded from the internet.

    Tom Brughmans

  2. You should check out Jóhann Jóhannsson's IBM 1401, nice neo-classical piece. Here is a bit from it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCyGrcPqB2M